Robert Blake (actor)
Blake in 1977
|Born||Michael James Gubitosi
September 18, 1933
Nutley, New Jersey, USA
|Other names||Bobby Blake
Lyman P. Docker
With Bonnie Lee Bakley:
Blake began performing as a child, with a lead role in the final years of MGM's Our Gang (Little Rascals) short film series from 1939 to 1944. He also appeared as a child actor in 22 entries of the Red Ryder film franchise. In the Red Ryder series and in many of his other roles as an adult, he was cast as a Native American or Latino character.
After a stint in the army, Blake returned to acting in both television and movie roles. He was married to Sondra Kerr, his first wife with whom he had two children, from 1964 until their divorce in 1983. He continued acting through 1997's Lost Highway for a career that author Michael Newton called "one of the longest in Hollywood history."
In 2005, Blake was tried and acquitted of the 2001 murder of his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, but on November 18, 2005, Blake was found liable in a California civil court for her wrongful death.
Blake was born Michael James Gubitosi in Nutley, New Jersey. His mother, Elizabeth Cafone (b. 1910), was married to Giacomo (James) Gubitosi (1906–1956). In 1930, James worked as a die setter for a can manufacturer. Eventually, James and Elizabeth began a song-and-dance act. In 1936, the three children began performing, billed as "The Three Little Hillbillies." They moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1938, where their children began working as movie extras.
Blake had an unhappy childhood and was allegedly abused by his alcoholic father. When he entered public school at age 10, he was bullied and had fights, which led to his expulsion. Blake states that he was physically and sexually abused by his parents while growing up and was frequently locked in a closet and forced to eat off the floor. His father committed suicide in 1956. At age 14, he ran away from home, leading to several more difficult years.
Gubitosi then began appearing in MGM's Our Gang short subjects (a.k.a. The Little Rascals) under his real name, replacing Eugene "Porky" Lee. He appeared in 40 of the shorts between 1939 and 1944, eventually becoming the series' final lead character. James and Giovanna Gubitosi also made appearances in the series as extras. In Our Gang, Gubitosi's character, Mickey, was often called upon to cry, for which he was criticized for being unconvincing. He was also criticized for being obnoxious and whiny. In 1942, he acquired the stage name Bobby Blake and his character in the series was renamed "Mickey Blake." In 1944, MGM discontinued Our Gang, releasing the final short in the series Dancing Romeo. In 1995, Blake was honored by the Young Artist Foundation with its Former Child Star "Lifetime Achievement" Award for his role in Our Gang.
In 1942 Blake appeared as "Tooky" Stedman in Andy Hardy's Double Life.
In 1944, Blake began playing a Native American boy, "Little Beaver," in the Red Ryder Western series at the studios of Republic Pictures (now CBS Radford Studios), appearing in 23 of the movies until 1947. He also had roles in one of Laurel and Hardy's later films The Big Noise (1944), and the Warner Bros. movies Humoresque (1946), playing John Garfield's character as a child, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), playing the Mexican boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a winning lottery ticket and gets a glass of water thrown in his face by Bogart in the process. In 1950, at age 17, Blake appeared as Mahmoud in The Black Rose and as Enrico, Naples Bus Boy (uncredited) in Black Hand.
Career as an adult
In 1950, Blake joined the Army. After returning to Southern California, he entered Jeff Corey's acting class and began working on improving his personal and professional lives. He eventually became a seasoned Hollywood actor, playing notable dramatic roles in movies and on television. In 1956, he was billed as Robert Blake for the first time.
In 1959, in what was considered a career blunder, he turned down the role of Little Joe Cartwright, a character ultimately portrayed by Michael Landon, in NBC's western television series Bonanza. Blake did appear that year as Tobe Hackett in the episode "Trade Me Deadly" of the syndicated western series 26 Men, which dramatized true stories of the Arizona Rangers. Blake also appeared twice as "Alfredo" in the syndicated western The Cisco Kid and starred in "The White Hat" episode of Men of Annapolis, another syndicated series. Blake appeared in three distinctive guest lead roles in the CBS series Have Gun Will Travel. He also guest starred on John Payne's NBC western, The Restless Gun, Nick Adams's ABC western, The Rebel, the NBC western series, The Californians, and the ABC adventure series, Straightaway.
Blake performed in numerous motion pictures as an adult, including the starring role in The Purple Gang (1960), a gangster movie, and featured roles in Pork Chop Hill in 1959 and, as one of four US soldiers participating in a gang rape in occupied Germany, in Town Without Pity in 1961. He was also in Ensign Pulver (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and other films. In 1967, he experienced a career breakout playing real-life murderer Perry Smith in In Cold Blood, for whom he bore a chilling physical resemblance.; Richard Brooks was Oscar nominated for director, adapting Truman Capote's non-fiction book for the film.
Blake played an Indian fugitive in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), a TV movie adaptation of Of Mice and Men (1981), and a motorcycle highway patrolman in iconoclastic Electra Glide in Blue (1973). He played a small-town stock car driver with ambitions to join the NASCAR circuit in Corky which MGM produced in 1972. The film featured real NASCAR drivers, including Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.
Blake may be best known for his Emmy Award-winning role of Tony Baretta in the popular television series Baretta (1975 to 1978), playing an undercover police detective who specialized in disguises. The show's trademarks included Baretta's pet cockatoo "Fred," his signature phrases — notably "That's the name of that tune" and "You can take that to the bank."
After Baretta ended, NBC offered to produce several pilot episodes of a proposed series called Joe Dancer, in which Blake would play the eponymous role of a hard-boiled private detective. In addition to starring, Blake also was credited as the executive producer and creator. Four episodes aired to poor reviews in 1981 and 1983, and the series never ultimately sold.
He continued to act through the 1980s and 1990s, mostly in television, in such roles as Jimmy Hoffa in the miniseries Blood Feud (1983) and as John List in the murder drama Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993), which earned him a third Emmy nomination. Blake starred in the 1985 television series Hell Town, playing a priest working in a tough neighborhood; and he also had character parts in the theatrical movies Money Train (1995) and chilling sinister character in David Lynch's mysterious, bizarre Lost Highway (1997).
Marriages and children
Blake and actress Sondra Kerr were married in 1961 and divorced in 1983. It was his first marriage, from which came two children: actor Noah Blake (born 1965) and Delinah Blake (born 1966).
In 1999, Blake met Bonnie Lee Bakley, formerly of Wharton, New Jersey, who reportedly had a history of exploiting older men—especially celebrities—for money. She was dating Christian Brando, son of Marlon Brando, during her relationship with Blake. Bakley became pregnant and told both Brando and Blake that her baby was theirs. Initially, Bakley named the baby "Christian Shannon Brando" and stated that Brando was the father of her child. Bakley wrote letters describing her dubious motives to Blake. Blake insisted that she take a DNA test to prove the paternity. Blake and Bakley married November 19, 2000 after DNA tests proved Blake to be the biological father of her child, renamed Rose. It was his second marriage and her tenth.
Arrest and trial for murder
On May 4, 2001, Blake took Bakley for an Italian dinner at Vitello's Restaurant at 4349 Tujunga Avenue in Studio City. Afterward, Bakley was killed by a gunshot to the head while sitting in the car, which was parked on a side street around the corner from the restaurant. Blake claimed that he had returned to the restaurant to collect a gun which he had left there, and was not present when the shooting occurred. The gun that Blake claimed he had left in the restaurant was later determined not to have fired the shots that killed Bakley.
On April 18, 2002, Blake was arrested and charged in connection with the murder of his wife. His longtime bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, was also arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with murder. A key event that gave the LAPD the confidence to arrest Blake came when a retired stuntman, Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, agreed to testify against him. Hambleton alleged that Blake tried to hire him to kill Bonnie Lee Bakley. Another retired stuntman and an associate of Hambleton's, Gary McLarty, came forward with a similar story.
According to author Miles Corwin, Hambleton agreed to testify against Blake only after being told he would be subject to a grand jury subpoena and a pending misdemeanor charge. Hambleton's motives for testifying were called into question by Blake's defense team during the criminal trial.
On April 22, 2002, Blake was charged with one count of murder with special circumstances, an offense eligible for the death penalty. He was also charged with two counts of solicitation of murder and one count of murder conspiracy. Blake pleaded not guilty to all charges. Caldwell was charged with a single count of murder conspiracy and also pleaded not guilty. Three days later, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office announced they would not seek the death penalty against Blake should he be convicted, but prosecutors would seek a sentence of life in prison without parole.
After Blake posted US$1 million bail, Caldwell was released, but a judge denied bail for Blake. On March 13, 2003, after almost a year in jail, Blake was granted bail, which was set at US$1.5 million, and he was allowed to go free to await trial. Blake was placed on house arrest during this time. On Oct. 31, in a major reversal for the prosecution, the judge dismissed the conspiracy charge against Blake and Caldwell during a pre-trial hearing. The junior prosecutor who handled the case, Shellie Samuels, was interviewed by CBS reporter Peter Van Sant for the CBS program 48 Hours Investigates. During the interview, broadcast in November 2003, she admitted the prosecutors had no forensic evidence implicating Blake, could not tie him to the murder weapon, had no witnesses and had virtually nothing in the way of hard evidence.
Murder trial and acquittal
Blake's criminal trial for murder began on December 20, 2004, with opening statements by the prosecution and then the defense the following day. The prosecution contended that Blake intentionally murdered Bakley to free himself from a loveless marriage, while the defense challenged all of the evidence, claiming that Blake was an innocent victim of circumstantial and fabricated evidence.
Prosecution testimony began with various witnesses detailing the night of the murder and the murder weapon used. Bakley was shot twice while sitting in the passenger side of the parked car and the passenger window was rolled down, indicating she may have been familiar with her assailant. The murder weapon was revealed to be a semi-automatic Walther P-38 pistol, which was found in a dumpster a few yards away from the parked car where the shooting took place.
On February 7, 2005, Gary McLarty claimed that in March 2001, Blake attempted to contract him to murder his wife; McLarty allegedly declined. McLarty's testimony was pulled apart under intense cross-examination, including a history of mental problems and his inability to remember any key details of the alleged contract offer. On February 9, testimony came from Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, who also claimed that Blake tried to solicit him to murder his wife. His testimony was also called into question during cross-examination when his past criminal record of various petty crimes for drug and gun possession was made known.
The prosecution rested its case on February 14. The defense began its case with a series of witnesses who poked holes in various parts of the prosecution's case, including relatives of Gary McLarty. On February 19, testimony was heard about the effects of chronic drug use on the mind—specifically, the minds of the two key prosecution witnesses, Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton and Gary McLarty, who were noted drug users during their stuntman careers. The lack of gunshot residue on Blake's hands was also a key part of the defense's case that Blake was not the shooter. Robert Blake chose not to testify. The defense rested its case on February 23, and after closing arguments were made on March 2–3, the jury retired to deliberate on March 4.
On March 16, 2005, Blake was found not guilty of the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley and of one of the two counts of solicitation of murder. The other count, the solicitation of Gary McLarty, was dropped after it was revealed that the jury was deadlocked 11–1 in favor of an acquittal. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, commenting on this ruling, called Blake a "miserable human being" and the jurors "incredibly stupid." Blake's defense team, led by attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach, and members of the jury responded that the prosecution had failed to prove its case. One trial analyst also agreed with the jury's verdict. On the night of his acquittal several fans celebrated at Blake's favorite haunt, Vitello's.
Bakley's three children filed a civil suit against Blake, asserting that he was responsible for their mother's death. On November 18, 2005, the jury found Blake liable for the wrongful death of his wife and ordered him to pay US$30 million. On February 3, 2006, Blake filed for bankruptcy. Expressing disbelief that Blake was found liable by the jury in the civil trial, Schwartzbach (Blake's attorney in the criminal trial) vowed to appeal the jury verdict.
Civil trial verdict appeal
According to the Associated Press, Schwartzbach filed the appeal brief on February 28, 2007. The AP also reported that an LAPD Internal Affairs investigation has been opened regarding the lead detective in the murder case, Detective Ron Ito. The complaint, filed by Schwartzbach and civil trial witness Brian Allan Fiebelkorn, alleged that the detective failed to investigate leads that persons other than Blake could have been responsible for the murder of Bakley. Fiebelkorn testified that associates of Christian Brando may have been responsible for the murder of Bakley. A defense theory of who may have been involved in the conspiracy to kill Bakley was laid out in a defense motion filed during the criminal trial proceedings.
On April 26, 2008, an appeals court upheld the civil case verdict, but cut Blake's penalty assessment in half to $15 million. Blake's attorneys had protested that jurors improperly discussed the Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson verdicts during deliberations of his case, but the appeals judge ruled that such discussions were not improper.
Retirement and 2010 tax lien
Blake has maintained a low profile since his acquittal and his filing for bankruptcy with debts of $3,000,000 for unpaid legal fees and state and federal taxes after the criminal and civil trials. Having retired from acting years before the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley, and due to his legal issues, Blake has said that he might return to acting someday to help himself financially. On 9 April 2010, the state of California filed a tax lien against Blake for $1,110,878 with the Los Angeles County Recorder of Deeds for unpaid back taxes.
In December 2011, Blake appeared on Tavis Smiley. On 16 July 2012, Blake was interviewed on Piers Morgan Tonight. During the interview, Blake was asked by Morgan about the night of the murder of Blake's wife, Bonnie. The line of questioning quickly led to Blake becoming defensive and angry. Blake said he resented Morgan's questioning and felt he was being interrogated. Morgan disagreed with Blake's assessment of the questioning saying he was only asking questions he felt people were eager to have answered. Blake told interviewers and wrote in his autobiography that he hoped he would be offered one more great acting role before he died.
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- Court of Appeals Opinion
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Robert Blake (actor).|
- Official website
- Robert Blake at the Internet Movie Database
- Robert Blake at AllMovie
- Robert Blake at DMOZ